A Lone Humorists's Attempt To Explain the Entire Federal Government

By P.J. O'Rourke

Atlantic Monthly Press. 233 pp. $19.95

P.J. O'ROURKE's new book is the most outrageous American civics text ever written. It is insulting, inflammatory, profane and absolutely great reading.

The book is, as O'Rourke puts it, "a lone humorist's attempt to explain the entire federal government." His explanations will drive the politically correct, and even the not so correct, into purple, raging apoplexy, which is exactly what satire is supposed to do.

There's simply no defense against the acid-tipped darts of wit with which O'Rourke brings down his prey. He prowls the government. He sights his prey. He raises his blowgun. Fffffft. Thud. The sacred cows of Washington drop one after another.

The elderly are "mortuary bait" who are gobbling up the nation's wealth with their "old goat entitlements." That chapter is called "Graft for the Millions."

He dismisses the welfare lobby and other "compassion fascists" with the withering observation, "It's hard to get too wet and sentimental about poverty that wears hundred-dollar gym shoes."

Then you have the environmentalists, another of the "perennially indignant" special interest groups. Some of these extremists are "missing a few sunflower seeds from {their} trail mix."

O'Rourke has earned the seething, eternal enmity of the feminists by noting that practically every female at a Washington homeless march was "a bowser."

His name-calling is gratuitous, insensitive, funny. He calls Jimmy Carter "a pathetic coot who spends his time hammering on old people's housing . . . " He calls the 1988 campaign between Bush and Dukakis the "Attack of the Midget Vote-Suckers." For good measure, he offends the wife of the vice president and a dead homeless activist.

What does all this mean, besides the fact that most politicians won't be caught reading this book except under the covers with a flashlight? Does this bombast have any purpose beyond pit bull attack humor?

Yes. Because this isn't really a humor book. I have no doubt that the clerks at Crown Books will put it on the humor shelf next to Everything I Know I Learned from My Cat or Gross Jokes III. But it doesn't belong there. It properly belongs on the social commentary or political science shelf. This is a book about the "great slime engine of government."

It's about the system that gave us the savings and loan scandal and a farm policy where "the annual subsidy for each American dairy cow is between $600 and $700 -- greater than the per capita income of half the world's population." It's about poverty, the budget disgrace, the "national busybodies" in the Congress, the president, the bureaucracy, and all the other institutions and issues that make up the federal government.

So why does O'Rourke have so many funny lines if his essays are to be taken seriously? Because he would be totally vilified -- no, let's make that crucified -- if he attempted to say seriously one-tenth of what he says with humor. His neck is also probably saved by the fact that the only people for whom he seems to have even a modicum of sympathy are the poor. THE BEST chapter in the book may be the chapter on poverty called "How to Endow Privation," which is a scathing indictment of federal social legislation. It's a fascinating chapter in which our hero O'Rourke accompanies the Guardian Angels on an adventure to rough up some crackheads.

The government's social programs are so irrelevant to improving the lives of the needy, that a rag-tag group of Guardian Angels has stepped in to fill the void. O'Rourke identifies the lost promise of government by observing that the complaints of most people in one housing project were largely about various government agencies, "which seem simultaneously to control every aspect of poor people's lives and to pay no attention whatsoever to poor people."

The book's final conclusion is that "government is morally wrong." I should add that O'Rourke is not totally against government. The State Department, after all, "gives us a way to ship Ivy League nitwits overseas."

But after observing special interests from the elderly to the bankers, after following the stupidity and cupidity of government, he finally concludes that "every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy the whores are us."

Landon Parvin is a speechwriter who frequently writes political humor.